Book: AKA Shakespeare (an extended Bayesian investigation)

by matt 2 min read28th Jun 201313 comments


Disclaimer: I have not read this book. I'm posting it in the expectation that others may enjoy it as much as I'm sure I would if I had time to read it myself.

This looks interesting as an extended worked example of Bayesian reasoning (the "scientific approach" of the title).

AKA Shakespeare: A Scientific Approach to the Authorship Question

The goal of AKA Shakespeare is to analyze the Shakespeare Authorship Question in such a way that you, Dear Reader, can review the evidence for yourself and come to your own conclusions. You will be presented with three candidates for the great playwright and poet whom we know as “Shakespeare.” He was either the gentleman from Stratford-upon-Avon (referred to as “Stratford”), Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (referred to as “Oxford”), or a vague “somebody else” (such as Christopher Marlowe, Henry Neville, etc., referred to as “Ignotus”). The book is built around 25 key questions. Concerning education, for instance, you are asked to infer Shakespeare's education level from his writings, and to compare that with the known (or more-or-less known, or speculated) education levels of Stratford, Oxford, and Ignotus. For each question, you are asked to express your opinions numerically. Rather than say “I strongly believe …,” you say, for instance, “I give 10 to 1 odds that … You then enter your numbers in a chart in the book. Alternatively and preferably, you enter your numbers in the companion website which contains a program, “Prospero,” who will process your entries and return your resulting conclusions, expressed as probabilities that Shakespeare was Stratford, or Oxford, or Ignotus. To accommodate a mix of information, debate, and speculation, AKA Shakespeare is written as a dialog involving four fictional characters who meet, drink, and talk in interesting locations—from Napa Valley to Big Sur—in Northern California. Beatrice, a professor of English literature, begins as a committed Stratfordian. Claudia, a detective-story writer, is skeptical. Her husband James (a once-successful engineer, now a less successful vintner) helps to identify the relevant questions. Martin is the scientist who develops and applies the necessary analytical procedures. (To see their portraits and biographies, open up Beatrice and Claudia end up agreeing that the leading candidate is de Vere, with Ignotus second and Stratford a very distant third. Beatrice’s entries lead to a final probability of 10−13 (one chance in ten million million) that Shakespeare was the gentleman from Stratford-upon-Avon. Claudia’s entries lead to an even smaller probability. James ends with the wry remark: “We—in our smug presumed wisdom—wonder how any men or women could possibly have been so foolish as to believe that the Earth was flat. Maybe, in a hundred years’ time, people will wonder how otherwise sensible men and women could have believed that the works of Shakespeare were written by a butcher’s apprentice from a small town in Warwickshire!” You are encouraged to review the evidence for yourself. You may find that you agree with Beatrice, Claudia, and James. On the other hand, you may not.


Edited to add:
There are many signs in the above block of text that this book is not up to Lesswrong standards. As gwern suggests, reading it should be done with an adversarial attitude.
I propose some more useful goals than finding someone for whom we can cheer loudly as a properly qualified member of our tribe: find worked examples that let you practice your art; find structured activities that will actually lead you to practice your art; try to critically assess arguments that use the tools we think powerful, then discuss your criticism on a forum like Lesswrong where your errors are likely to be discovered and your insights are likely to be rewarded (with tasty karma).